Immersed in Danger: Reporters Risking Death

Two journalists who walked into the lion’s den: Wolfgang Bauer went undercover to share the journey of Syrian refugees fleeing the terror of war, while Jürgen Todenhöfer confronted that terror, spending ten days as a guest of the Islamic State

Article by Alan Bett | 31 May 2016
  • Jürgen Todenhöfer

“I asked a judge, 'Will there be an amputation or an execution in the next few days?' And the judge said 'No… because our amputations have been such a deterrent that nobody’s stealing anymore.' Then, at this moment this German terrorist said, 'Oh, if you want to film that I’ll arrange it, I’ll do it myself. Our prisons are full of people. An amputation or a beheading? As you like.'”

Jürgen Todenhöfer was in the Islamic State, shielded by a single sheet of paper – one signed and stamped by the office of the Caliph. A guarantee ‘of safety for the German journalist Jürgen Todenhöfer, so that he can travel safely in the territories of the Islamic State with his worldly goods and his travelling companions.’ It was a promise negotiated over six months, yet a group who behead journalists make promises few reporters would test in practice. 

“I was thinking about this problem – if I would come back alive,” admits the 75-year-old Todenhöfer; author, politician and former judge in his native Germany. “They published the guarantee on the internet as a state, so as a state they would have [incurred] huge damage if they had beheaded me.” He conveys these thoughts over the phone to The Skinny, matter-of-factly, as if discussing just another technicality of the journey he and his photographer son Frédéric embarked upon in 2014, to spend ten days with ISIS – as reported in his new book My Journey into the Heart of Terror. “They kept their promise, we came back alive.”

Setting off on an equally significant journey that same year, journalist Wolfgang Bauer hoped for the same outcome. He and his photographer Stanislav Krupar had constructed false identities as English language teachers from the Caucasus regions of Russia. They were in Egypt, their departure point for being trafficked across the ocean into Europe, to experience first-hand the journey across which 1,500 people drown each year. That specific danger was relegated, however, beneath slipping from character.

“In the beginning we feared most the time on the boats,” Bauer admits, Skyping in from a safe middle class home in rural Germany, “because of the claustrophobic situation, and because of my colleague and his camera and iPhone, that somebody would notice that he takes pictures. Our scariest imagining [was] that the smugglers would just throw us to the ocean because they would have assumed that we were agents from the CIA, from Mossad, from European Border Protection.” Bauer shrugs. “You have to stay in character, absolutely. You’re an actor, acting for your life.” His performance bore feature-length reports, published in the German newspaper Die Zeit, and now compiled into the devastating book Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe.

So what do these dangerous, immersive experiences offer that traditional reporting cannot? “I think it’s difficult for any media to report correctly because you cannot go there [ISIS-controlled territory],” explains Todenhöfer in his instance. “The propaganda videos have nothing to do with the reality of Mosul. I can’t criticise the journalist who says, 'I don’t want to take the risk to go to the Islamic state,' so we have a problem.” Without his journalistic offering we must choose between myopic external reports or ISIS propaganda. “For example, in the videos you always see those masked fighters on convoys with machine guns, but this is show,” says Todenhöfer. “In the real life of Mosul you never see that.” His is a rare insight into “how they tick, how these people think. What is their reasoning?”

As an experienced international reporter, Bauer’s reasoning is immersed in logic as much as aspiration; a logic which starkly highlights the plight of Syrian refugees. “In Aleppo you can’t protect yourself because of all the bombing,” he says. “Which is the reason why so many people prefer the boat. It’s much more dangerous to work in Aleppo than to accompany refugees crossing the ocean.”

His book itself is an immersive experience, the reader inhabiting the role of refugee, empathising in a way that is impossible through mere statistics. Tragically, it is easier for European readers to comprehend this journey when undertaken by a German journalist, just as Hollywood generally views Third World suffering through a western lens. “If you just interview refugees who make it successfully to Europe, it has a different effect on people because it’s not first-hand experience,” admits Bauer. “It’s drawn by people from different cultural backgrounds, from places you don’t know. If you go as a reporter on behalf of all the others in your home country and you see it with your own eyes, then it has a much stronger effect on your readers. You had so many interviews with the refugees, and I’ve seen an increasing lack of understanding from the German population.”  

His first-hand experiences meant that Bauer could draw out the characters of the refugees on the page. He could humanise the statistics. “Yeah, it’s the soul of the genre,” he says. “You put all the figures and statistics away and you focus on one specific life with all the contradictions that belong to an individual in biography. And that makes it closer to us because figures don’t mean anything to anybody.” In September 2014 a boat of 500 refugees was rammed by smugglers following a dispute. It sank. Nearly all the men, women and children on board drowned in the Mediterranean. Bauer knew one of these 500 personally, a man who had brought him clean clothing while he was in an Egyptian jail after a failed crossing. This single life resonates far more than a faceless 500. “That’s the reason why I do features,” says Bauer. “Features bring people who don’t know each other, and who are separated by thousands of kilometres, as close as possible by language.”

Historically, conflict reporters had carte blanche, until overstepping the mark in Vietnam by reporting the truth. Michael Herr, in his peerless work Dispatches, recounts the Generals who understood that the media was the primary battlefield; who would say, ‘My Marines are winning this war, and you people are losing it for us in your papers.’ While in the Islamic State, untethered access proved to be Todenhöfer's challenge, one he decided to confront head on. “If you go with the Americans as an embedded journalist you see just one thing,” he says, critical of this form of journalism. “The thing they want to show you. Here it was different.”

But there remained a requirement to confirm roles and relationships with his armed charges. Especially with the mysterious driver, who they began to sense was more than he initially appeared to be. “This masked driver, who I think was Jihadi John, I realised that he wanted to dominate us. In the first moments, in the first hours you have to show that you won’t accept this, otherwise you’ve lost.” This sparked tense and potentially deadly confrontations, with Todenhöfer demanding freedom to report. Yet on the whole his subjects felt there was little to hide “They told me, 'If you say we are brutal, that’s correct. If you say that we kill people, that we are beheading people, that we enslave people, you can write this because it’s true.' Brutality is their USP. They said of course you can write this.”

The accusation related to his open reporting is that it offers a platform for ISIS' views and beliefs, especially as the book publishes largely unedited Q&A sessions with the terrorist Abu Qatahda and a Jihadist Salim. These and similar accusations have earned Todenhöfer death threats from all sides of the political spectrum – many online – and an expertly tied hangman's noose was left at the door to his office. “No, I didn’t give them a platform,” Todenhöfer quickly retorts when our conversation moves in this direction. “If you say that we shouldn't have the possibility to show horrible things, you could stop most TV information every evening. You would only have 20% left.”

‘If you want to find the truth you must speak to both sides,’ he claims in the introduction to his book. His actions speak as loudly as those words, having met with members of Al Quaeda, The Taliban and even with the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. “I spoke with him several times… and I was tagged a friend of dictators. Then I met ISIS and they said I’m a friend of the terrorists. They have to take a decision. Am I a friend of a dictator or his worst enemies, the terrorists?”

Both his and Bauer's brave and unique journalistic works navigate a minefield of moral and theoretical issues. Yet their reasoning remains unadulterated. “When you go into a hospital,” states Todenhöfer, “you forget the big words about war. You see dying rebels, you see suffering civilians, you see suffering soldiers. We should do whatever we can to stop wars and to find other solutions. To see what war is really, you [need to] see the hospitals in these war zones.” Wolfgang Bauer’s book concludes, simply, ‘Have mercy.’

My Journey into the Heart of Terror is out now, published by Greystone Books, RRP £17.99 Crossing the Sea with Syrians on the Exodus to Europe is out now, published by & Other Stories, RRP £15